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Universities and colleges wait to see where axe will fall in B.C.

David Parkins/The Globe and Mail

This summer, the woman whose audits exposed high spending at BC Ferries, BC Hydro and the Vancouver School Board is turning her sights on British Columbia's post-secondary institutions.

Advanced education is the one sector that has been singled out for budget cuts in Premier Christy Clark's fiscal plan. And it is the one part of the public sector that her chief rival, Adrian Dix, has promised would get a cash injection should the New Democrats win the next provincial election.

Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland is the deputy minister for advanced education. On July 11, she will sit down with university presidents in a Vancouver hotel to help them see the wisdom of finding ways to reduce costs.

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As the former comptroller general of B.C., Ms. Wenezenki-Yolland is the government's go-to watchdog on spending reform. The B.C. Liberals' objective is to bend the cost curve down on post-secondary spending, as they did with mixed success by cajoling the province's health authorities to pool resources.

But cutting advanced education right now is counter-intuitive, given that B.C. business leaders are raising the alarm about a skills shortage.

And the problem will only grow in the coming decade. In a report last November, the B.C. Business Council estimated that three-quarters of all job openings in this decade will require some form of post-secondary training. A third of all new jobs will demand a university degree.

The business council's top economists called on the province to increase the number of post-secondary students, with a special effort needed to reach first nations and low-income people.

Other provinces, even in the face of economic constraints, are heeding similar calls.

To help Ontario wrestle its deficit, economist Don Drummond recommended stiff restraint – but made post-secondary spending the exception. The Drummond Report on Ontario's public service does call for an efficiency drive in post-secondary schools. But it also recommends more money. In the provincial budget that followed, universities were given spending increases that average 1.9 per cent.

In B.C., publicly funded universities and colleges are being challenged to cut their budgets by 1.5 per cent next year.

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"It will be tight," says Don Wright, president of the B.C. Institute for Technology. He was one of 25 college and university presidents who co-authored a letter to the Clark government warning that the cuts could hurt education. Mr. Wright says he is willing to join the search for savings, but he also hopes to use the meeting with the deputy minister this summer to try to change the government's mind.

"I think it is critical we invest in our people so we can have a highly productive, highly skilled, high-wage work force," he said.

Naomi Yamamoto, the Minister of Advanced Education, says it is perfectly reasonable to ensure that the massive public investment in higher education is spent well. Add together government contributions, tuition fees and donations, and the system consumes $5.9-billion a year in B.C., she said.

A mere $70-million next year could be trimmed without harming education, she said. "We are adamant that savings come from the administrative side."

The government has used Ms. Wenezenki-Yolland's audits of Crown corporations to expose gold-plated perks for executives and employees alike, and to demand change as a result. Ms. Yamamoto said this financial review isn't aimed at taking on ivory-tower salaries.

"We are initially looking at procurement practices," she said in an interview. "Individual institutions may look at their staffing complement, but the intention is that the system comes together and helps us recognize the savings."

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Mr. Dix, the New Democratic Party leader, calls the government's budget decision on advanced education an "egregious error" that cannot wait until after the next election to be rectified.

"At a time when there is a shortage of skills, they are not even maintaining what we have now? That's a lack of economic vision," he said.

But the government's economic vision involves delivering a balanced budget ahead of the May, 2013, provincial election. The odds that Ms. Clark will be persuaded that long-term investments in advanced education are more important, at this point, look poor. The presidents of B.C.'s universities and colleges have reason to hope for a change in government next spring.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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